Abrasion-set limits on Himalayan gravel flux

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Abstract

Rivers sourced in the Himalayan mountain range carry some of the largest sediment loads on the planet1, yet coarse gravel in these rivers vanishes within approximately 10–40 kilometres on entering the Ganga Plain (the part of the North Indian River Plain containing the Ganges River). Understanding the fate of gravel is important for forecasting the response of rivers to large influxes of sediment triggered by earthquakes or storms. Rapid increase in gravel flux and subsequent channel bed aggradation (that is, sediment deposition by a river) following the 1999 Chi-Chi and 2008 Wenchuan earthquakes2,3,4,5,6,7reduced channel capacity and increased flood inundation3. Here we present an analysis of fan geometry, sediment grain size and lithology in the Ganga Basin. We find that the gravel fluxes from rivers draining the central Himalayan mountains, with upstream catchment areas ranging from about 350 to 50,000 square kilometres, are comparable. Our results show that abrasion of gravel during fluvial transport can explain this observation; most of the gravel sourced more than 100 kilometres upstream is converted into sand by the time it reaches the Ganga Plain. These findings indicate that earthquake-induced sediment pulses sourced from the Greater Himalayas, such as that following the 2015 Gorkha earthquake8, are unlikely to drive increased gravel aggradation at the mountain front. Instead, we suggest that the sediment influx should result in an elevated sand flux, leading to distinct patterns of aggradation and flood risk in the densely populated, low-relief Ganga Plain.

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